Are our daily lessons to our children all the wrong ones?
In a building in downtown Chicago at the end of August, nearly 200 young people attended a college send-off event, all on their way to a four-year college or university somewhere in the U.S. What makes this event noteworthy is that all were African American or Hispanic, from the West and South sides of Chicago, and the children of families among the poorest in the city. These families and others pay their rent with assistance from the Chicago Housing Authority. Those at the event were just some of the 7,000-plus CHA residents attending college this year.
At about the same time, students who attend Little Black Pearl, a public school in Bronzeville on the city’s South Side serving mostly African-American families who live in poverty, got good news as well. Nike’s LBP x Jordan Brand Footwear and Apparel Program would be using design work the students produced in class for new product and store design. The company also will award four college scholarships each year to Little Black Pearl students.
While the number of young people at these events dwarf the number of young people shot or killed, these encouraging stories were not news, and received little or no notice by the city’s media.
Regrettably, we have created a narrative that is false and harmful — to our youth and our city. Reading the daily papers, looking at the online headlines or listening to the news, the only conclusion to be drawn is that Chicago is mayhem, our children are either victims or predators and residents are apathetic or paralyzed.
The fact is that violent crime is down in Chicago — even in the toughest communities; more young people than ever are graduating from high school, going to college and seeking to create a life of value for themselves and society.
What young people need — what they want — is illumination of the pathways through which they can attain lives of value. And that requires a change, not on their part, but ours.
It’s time for a new strategy. Our efforts should not be aimed solely at “stopping violence” but on creating opportunities; not only on remediation but on proactive strategies that connect young people with possibilities before the life of the street, recognition for being tough, or having a baby at too-young an age become the pathways to adulthood.
The change in focus would also be good for Chicago. While tourists are flocking here, Chicago’s reputation as a violent city has hurt us; in many ways a self-inflicted wound.
Making sure the world knows that Chicago has the nation’s third-largest percentage of young people in post-secondary education, that 75 percent of CPS students aspire to a four-year degree and that smart, creative kids from the South Side are producing product and store designs for some of the country’s biggest brands just might help change the perception about the city and its homegrown human talent.
This could lead to the kind of corporate investment that brings the jobs we need for real pathways to employment and careers that make street corners and their deadly ends the least attractive choice.
If there is any doubt about the power and appeal of a change in strategy, consider this: If you want to attract 500 youths to an event, call a demonstration about police brutality. If you want to attract 5,000, hold a job fair.